PORTLAND, Ore. – With U.S. Indian tribes expressing new interest in chartering credit unions, a Washington-based Indian housing group is holding a first-of-its-kind "Native American Credit Union Conference" in a Portland suburb Oct. 1 to "promote the benefits of credit unions" with CU formation a key topic. The half-day conference in Clackamas is sponsored by the National American Indian Housing Council and coincides with a national meeting of tribal leaders on grant monitoring sponsored by NAIHC and the Seattle-based Northwest Indian Housing Assn. "The conference is dedicated to creating greater awareness among tribal housing entities about the benefits of credit unions," said the NAIHC, noting the Oregon session would address the problem of "limited access to capital and financial services" for Native American Indians. But the session at the Monarch Hotel Convention Center will also focus on encouraging tribes "to start their own credit unions and bring valuable services, like savings and lending opportunities to tribal areas," said Gary Gordon, NAIHC's executive director. While the idea of a conference to discuss CU benefits for the tribes was applauded by CUs with Indian membership, the proposal to charter CUs on reservations or tribal lands has touched off division among CU executives about the need for more CU charters and whether they can be sustained. "Starting a credit union is not the same as a tribe opening a bingo parlor," said James Williams, president/CEO of the $53 million Oklahoma Health Services Federal Credit Union of Oklahoma City and a director of CUNA. As part of his community expansion, his CU, said Williams, for months has been eager to sign more Indian members or tribal SEGs in its field of membership and to that end on Sept. 3 opened a branch, its third, in Chickasha, southeast of Oklahoma City and which has a large Indian population. "I think some of these tribes don't realize how costly it is to start a credit union when it is so much easier to use the services of an existing credit union," said Williams. But even in his own institution, there is division on the topic since his vice president , Cliff Higgs, a former examiner, said resources could be made available to tribes in Oklahoma or elsewhere to start CUs "and if they get a little help from NCUA, have the right person in charge, and get good advice they could have something of their own." Higgs added "it's not the first time I disagree with my boss." Siding with Higgs about the need for more Indian-run CUs is Olivia Flute, president of the $2.5 million Sisseton-Wahpeton Federal Credit Union of Agency Village, S.D. and originally scheduled to be a speaker at the Clackamas conference who said "I sure wish we had more in South Dakota to service our community." Flute, whose Indian-run CU was formed in 1979, said she has been in touch with Ogallala Sioux tribal members in Pine Ridge about starting a CU there but so far nothing has transpired. In addition to NAIHC leaders, also slated to speak on the Clackamas program is Keith Bonds, member services director of the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions in Washington, and Alison Carr, director of education for the Oregon Credit Union Assn. In her presentation, Carr said she will discuss CU history and benefits of CU membership as well as review CUNA financial education programs including a literacy programs in Oregon in which the League has partnered with Schools Plus Central Credit Union in Pendleton. Regarding new charters, Donald Crofut, president of the $27 million South Metro Federal Credit Union in Prior Lake, Minn. and a member of the Muscogee Creek tribe in Oklahoma, said "each individual tribe should make a decision based on their own needs and for some" chartering a separate CU "may not be practical." The Prior Lake CU was started in 1992 and has a community charter to serve Scott County, the home of the Mdewakanton-Shakopee tribe, he said. Meanwhile, in Oklahoma, Robert Hadley, president of the $50 million NEO Federal Credit Union in Miami, said his CU over the years has worked closely with tribes in the area to "support them on mortgages and help with financing of various projects" including planned home developments. The tribes, he said, "recognize they should be coming to us and not to a bank." Keeping a close connection to Miami area tribes has been NEO's vice chairman, Joe Goforth, who is a second chief with the Peoria tribe. The Clackamas conference, organized by NAIHC, is a followup to another NAIHC meeting on CUs in Afton, Okla. last May at which Lisa Finley, vice president of governmental and public affairs for the Oklahoma Credit Union League, was a featured speaker. Finley, a member of the Cherokee tribe, a former marketing director of the Cherokee National Historical Society and a lobbyist for the tribe, said she is heartened by the industry's new interest in CU development. In her Afton speech, she noted that Oklahoma with 37 Native American tribes has the largest Indian population of any state in the U.S. and that CUs in Oklahoma and elsewhere could strive to provide greater levels of housing assistance to Indians. The National Credit Union Foundation, she noted, has provided more than $400,000 in grant funds to incubate affordable mortgage lending initiatives in rural and Latino low and moderate income groups. "With the Foundation's recent partnership with HUD and work within the Latino communities, it appears there could also be a partnership established to help tribal communities throughout the country," said Finley. Many Indians are dependent on their tribe for housing assistance but "many of them fall through the cracks because they are just over income levels required to participate in tribal assistance programs," she said. "It seems beneficial to look at how credit unions could bridge the gap." On business lending, Finley said, CUs ought to step up their lending to the "generally single person very small business ventures" characterized by arts and crafts, jewelry making and story telling. CUs, she concluded, have a job to do in education since "tribal communities are not as informed as they should be on financial opportunities and the safeguards they need to take." -

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